The tale of Tom, the boy who had everything

27th June 1997 at 01:00
As a teacher with many years' experience, I have long been aware of the detrimental effects of negligent parenting. It was some years before I realised that over-indulgent parenting was just as harmful.

Negligence is when parents fail to meet a child's basic needs for recognition, stimulation and structure - they give too little. Over-indulgence, on the other hand, is when children are given too much, to the extent that they are robbed of their initiative and confidence.

In the classroom the results can be observed in many ways. We will take Tom as an example (not his real name, but he does exist), and there are many more Toms, and his female equivalents, in every school.

Tom is often late, because if he is tired in the morning Mum will allow him an extra few minutes in bed (he probably went to bed late after watching an unsuitable video, merely because he wanted to). Thus, he begins at an early age to believe that rules were made for other people and not for him. He gets up out of his seat and wanders around at will. He interrupts conversations, adults as well as children. He has little consideration or respect for the feelings of other people. He is not popular.

Tom's attendance at school is erratic. The most insignificant cough or a tearful plea because teacher, pupil, or dinner lady is picking on him is sufficient reason for Tom to stay at home. Indeed, it is difficult for him to be separated from his mother as she runs his life for him.

Since Tom is also the centre of his mother's life she is happy for him to stay with her. Tom prefers her to school. She must be a great mother! She has to believe this since it is only through her son that she feels any power. Without him she is nothing. It is crucial to her to keep control over him and she is so afraid of losing his "love" that she is prepared to give him almost anything he asks for.

As for Tom, he is so used to his mother living his life for him, he feels anxious and powerless when she is not around.

This anxiety, and his frequent absences from school, have led to learning difficulties, as he lacks confidence in his own ability. He is not able to do anything for himself. He is now recognised as having special educational needs and has the protection of a statement. However, as the present system of support focuses on children who are disruptive in a more overt way, his real problems are not recognised and the support provided is for his learning and not for his emotional difficulty.

Since it is in the interest of Tom and his mother for him not to grow up, his behaviour is immature. He speaks, at times, more like a two-year-old: "Me want the toilet." He cannot tie his shoe-laces. He scores poorly in spelling tests. He is scared of doing PE in case he hurts himself. He provides weekly excuses as to why he is unable to swim.

Tom is overweight. How could he not be when Mum meets him every day with a bag of sweets and when he is able to buy whatever he fancies at tuck time?

Tom has no friends. His erratic attendance and his whining manner alienate his peers who also observe his mother taking him to school daily and recognise his dependency. Tom is bullied and is unable to fend for himself, so he takes even more time away from school.

Over-indulged children end up with fewer strategies to deal with life than their neglected counterparts, who at least develop coping strategies and a certain street wisdom that helps them survive. Tom has none of these. He has been set up to become one of life's victims.

Over-indulgence leads to confused and sad children and later, confused, sad and unsuccessful adults. I would like to see more research carried out in this area. Perhaps this article could be a starting point? If this is an area of research that is of interest to you, or if you have worked successfully with these troubled children and their parents, please contact me through The TES.

We may be able to collate some ideas that would help teachers in their dealings with these children. It is time we recognised the extent of over-indulgence and began exploring ways to diminish it.

Veronica Birkett lives and teaches in Walsall, West Midlands. She is also a psychotherapist. Write to her co TES primary section, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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